Will push to legalize marijuana in NJ survive Trump’s attorney general?
Supporters of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes in New Jersey have 2018 circled on their calendars. That's when they expect that whoever is elected governor this November will look more favorably on the idea than Gov. Chris Christie, who says he’d never sign such a law.
They’ll find out soon if the idea will even survive 2017.
President-elect Donald Trump has sent mixed messages about his opinion on marijuana policy. There isn’t any such ambiguity by his nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a staunch opponent who has said good people don’t use marijuana.
Sessions’ confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee will be held Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington. The future of marijuana policy in the United States probably won’t be a major priority at the hearings, but the topic is likely to come up, perhaps giving a first glance at how Sessions and the new president will handle the issue.
“I think everyone should have concerns, right? We are at a change in administration,” said Bill Caruso, one of the steering committee members for New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. "But I think if you look in a larger sense, and you look at where this movement and this effort is going, and it's been a state-led movement, I don't know that you can turn back this clock any longer.”
Eight states, home to 20 percent of the United States population, have legalized marijuana. But that’s been possible because the Justice Department under President Barack Obama has agreed to look the other way – and that can be easily reversed by the new administration.
“I think Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, if Jeff Sessions is confirmed, are going to have bigger issues to deal with than toying with an industry that, albeit still in its infant stages, is growing in leaps and bounds and, frankly, without a lot of controversy,” Caruso said.
Marijuana activist Jay Lassiter said Sessions’ nomination has caused uncertainty about the immediate future of marijuana policy, but he’s hopeful that the federal government will take a hands-off approach and let states make their own decisions.
“Southern boys like Jeff Sessions have been raving on and on about states’ rights for over 150 years,” Lassiter said.
“I suspect going after people who smoke pot for medical purposes and even recreationally would be very, very unpopular,” Lassiter said. “And certainly, very antithetical to the whole states’ rights argument that you have from your average Alabama senator.”
Lassiter said he’s worried not just about how the Trump administration will approach marijuana legalization but even whether it allows medicinal marijuana, which has been approved by more than half the states. He said he’s counting on Trump realizing it would be “political untenable” to prevent that.
“Look, when a medical marijuana patient like myself is counting on Donald Trump’s good sense to not let his attorney general run amok on the nation’s medical marijuana laws, that’s a rough day,” Lassiter said.
“This will be a good opportunity for Trump to do something not crazy,” he said. “He’s never tweeted anything crazy about marijuana, so I’ll just take that as a good sign.”
Trump has consistently said he is fully supportive of medical marijuana. But his opinions on the legalization of marijuana more broadly have varied. He said he has gotten very negative reports about the impact of Colorado’s marijuana industry, though at times has also said it should be left to states.
Caruso said Trump could lead on one issue that has hamstrung legal marijuana businesses: banking. The industry can’t use federally chartered banks to deposit money derived from the sale of a federally prohibited drug. Republicans in Congress such as U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have an interest in that issue.
“So it's possible that we see some work on the financial side of this at the federal level, to further legitimize this growth industry,” Caruso said. “But I think it's too soon to tell what's going to happen from a policy standpoint. But I'm doubtful that we're going to see a cracking down on the expansion of legalized marijuana in state jurisdictions. I just don't see the federal government tackling that.”
If that’s the case, additional states could feel comfortable legalizing recreational marijuana.
Hearings in the state Senate on the idea are expected this year, with an eye toward acting on the proposal early in 2018, depending on the views of the candidate elected as governor.
“I expect that in this time period in 2018, from January to June, that marijuana will be legalized in New Jersey,” Caruso said. “I think they're going to need it for the budget revenue. I think they're going to want to book it, whoever the governor is going to be, in their next budget. I'm expecting it.”
Lassiter said the chances depend on what happens out of Washington, which could be divulged at Sessions’ confirmation hearing.
“Obviously if Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions have a scorched-earth approach to marijuana policy ... that might halt it altogether,” said Lassiter.